Verbal Energy

Punctuation? Make mine 'illogical'

A spate of articles and blog posts suggests that Americans are adopting British rules for commas and periods with quotation marks; the Monitor's language columnist isn't sure she buys it.

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Have you noticed the flood of reports lately that British-style "logical" punctuation is "taking over"?

OK, call it a "puddle" of reports, but how often does punctuation make headlines at all?

Last month Ben Yagoda published a column in Slate headed "The Rise of 'Logical Punctuation'." A subhead sternly warned that the placement of that period was not a copy error.

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Mr. Yagoda began, "For at least two centuries, it has been standard practice in the United States to place commas and periods inside of quotation marks." That practice continues in professionally edited prose, he added.

"But in copy-editor-free zones – the Web and emails, student papers, business memos – with increasing frequency, commas and periods find themselves on the outside of quotation marks, looking in. A punctuation paradigm is shifting."

He supports his arguments with his own review of punctuation on pages on the Web ("because it displays in a clear light the way we write now"). The style he's describing is known as "logical" (when it's not known simply as "British"), because the comma or period is placed within or without the quotes on the basis of whether the punctuation is part of the original utterance.

Here's an example of a familiar sentence punctuated "logically": "The only thing we have to fear", said Franklin Roosevelt, "is fear itself." The comma after the first "fear" wasn't in the original utterance. And so it doesn't make it into the embrace of the quote marks but instead flaps out there in the line of text like an untucked shirttail.

Here's the same sentence punctuated "traditionally": "The only thing we have to fear," said Franklin Roosevelt, "is fear itself."

Yagoda reports that according to the Modern Language Association, American-style or "traditional" punctuation goes back to the early years of the republic and was instituted for aesthetic reasons: It arguably just looks better.

But familiarity counts for much, too, especially for an editor who is as used to checking for commas and periods to be tucked in at the right place as a night watchman is used to rattling doorknobs.

If I may launch an apparent digression: When I was in my early teens, my family moved from southern California to South Carolina on account of my father's work. As head cheerleader for the whole enterprise, he kept pointing out to us interesting things about our new home: new foods, new ways of doing things, new ways of talking.

One day he came home to report a colorful new pronunciation he'd heard: He'd met a man who used a word he pronounced "in-TRIG-id." Dad was sure he'd found a Southern way of saying intrigued.

I was just old enough to know the dangers of saying aloud for the first time in company a word one knows only from reading. And so I asked, "Dad, are you sure it's a real Southern pronunciation? Do you think maybe he just doesn't know how to pronounce 'intrigued'?" I don't remember Dad's answer.

But where Yagoda thinks he sees a punctuation paradigm shifting, I think I may be seeing the typographical equivalent of "in-TRIG-id." To call it "logical" may impute too much logic to those who practice the style.

And if the subject is the English language, and the contest is between logic and tradition, I'd call it for tradition in a heartbeat.

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